Thursday, March 05, 2015

how flounder metamorphosis metamorphosed me

Flounder Metamorphosis, India ink on scratchboard. Alyce Santoro, 1993

I am now an interdisciplinary conceptual artist (for lack of a better descriptor...), but I began my career as a marine biologist. After receiving a BS degree in Biology in 1990, I moved to Providence, RI to enroll in Rhode Island School of Design's graduate certificate program in Scientific and Technical Illustration. While attending classes at night, I worked by day as a laboratory assistant at URI, first on salmon aquaculture research, then on a multi-year study of microzooplankton for the seagoing GLOBEC project.

In honor of the March 1 - 7, 2015 #SciArt twitter storm, I offer the following excerpt from my book PHILOSOPROPS: A UNIFIED FIELD GUIDE on how a fish was the catalyst for my own metamorphosis from scientist to artist:
One early drawing in particular made it clear that I was indeed headed into territory not charted by formal education in either science or illustration. I was investigating the life cycle of flounder, which, when they are born, seem to have all the skeletal and other characteristics of an ordinary, bilaterally symmetrical fish. I learned that over the course of their first two weeks of life, however, flounder begin listing to one side, swimming increasingly sideways, with their eyes slowly migrating over to what is to become the top of their head. By the time a flounder is about a month old, it is a fully-formed (if a bit skewed-looking) flatfish, with both eyes on the same side of a camouflage-colored body, white-bellied underneath.

I found this metamorphosis completely astounding, and wanted to know how a fish that begins its life in a "regular" body would know that the time had come to begin transforming into an entirely different shape. The scientists studying flounder at URI could tell me that the process is likely triggered by hormones but that, as yet, there had been nothing discovered about the physical or chemical composition of a newborn flounder to indicate the impending change. 

In the process of studying and drawing flounder, I gained a deeper appreciation for the strange beauty and mysterious habits of these creatures. In examining their every scale, their odd gaze, and the velvety, slimy feel of their skin, I developed a sense of respect and empathy for these fellow life forms that I did not see outwardly expressed by my fellow scientists; any feelings we may have had about the fish were not relevant to the research. But the sensation of awe and wonder was part of the science that I craved and felt most compelled to pursue. If I had known then about Goethe's idea of delicate empiricism, I might have felt less like a misfit. 

More information on this illustrated book about life and work at the intersection of art and science, including long excerpts and a link to download the entire text for free, please visit my website.